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When History Demands a Response: Tearepa Kahi and Tame Iti Talk Tuhoe Raids Drama 'Muru'

A huge New Zealand box office hit and an Asia Pacific Screen Award-winner, this powerful film grapples with Aotearoa’s history — and writer/director Tearepa Kahi and activist Tāme Iti talk us through it.
By Sarah Ward
November 11, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
November 11, 2022
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A cup of tea can't soothe all ills, solve any traumas of the past or smooth over centuries of systemic oppression; however, it is how the biggest New Zealand film of 2022 started to spring to fruition. That movie is Muru, writer/director Tearepa Kahi's (Poi E: The Story of Our SongMt Zion) take on the treatment of Aotearoa's Tūhoe community by the NZ government and law enforcement. It spins a story easily tied to one event, the October 2007 armed police raids of Rūātoki that were carried out under terrorism laws — acting on supposed suspicion of paramilitary training camps in the Urewera mountain range — but it gleans inspiration from multiple incidents that've blighted the country's history.

"This film is not a recreation… it is a response," Muru tells its audience at the outset. That's an important statement. Kahi's approach is to work through the raids — and to draw upon the police shooting of Steven Wallace in Waitara in 2000, and from the arrest of Rua Kēnana in Maungapōhatu in 1916 — to offer a reply that might just prevent such horrors from recurring in the future. His feature lays bare how the community was impacted when police stormed in 15 years ago, and the distress it brought. An emotional film as well as an action-packed one, Muru doesn't hold back, whether it's confronting generations of prejudice, reckoning with its consequences or depicting what that kind of experience is like in shattering detail.

When the cups of teas behind Muru began being poured, Kahi wasn't the only one doing the sipping. Also at the table: Tāme Iti, who was one of 18 people arrested during the 2007 raids. His off-screen input was always going to be crucial; his on-screen presence is as well. The activist and Rūātoki local plays himself in the film opposite fellow tea-drinker and NZ actor Cliff Curtis (Reminiscence), with Kahi bringing two famed Aotearoans together for a pivotal cause. Passion radiates from the end result: passion to tell this tale, to do it justice, to reflect the community's ordeal and to make a difference.

It's no wonder that Muru has not only resonated on home soil, including opening the 2022 New Zealand International Film Festival midyear and its local box-office success, but also travelled further afield. Berths at the Toronto and Busan film fests, a cinema release in Australia, earning the Asia Pacific Screen Awards' Cultural Diversity Award: they've all followed.

As Muru continues to share its story in NZ, in Australia and beyond, we spoke with Kahi and Iti about making a feature that history demanded, those cups of teas, the responsibilities of a film like this and more.

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ON DECIDING TO MAKE A FILM THAT RESPONDS TO THE TŪHOE RAIDS

Tearepa: "Our first cup of tea together was in 2018, but my father and Papa Tāme, and my father-in-law and Papa Tāme, are friends, so the relationship predates 2018.

You could almost say 'where did this film start?'. It probably started on the 15th of October 2007."

Tāme: "I think those beginnings, it was really talking to people that we can trust. For me personally, it was: who do I need to talk to, and how do we do that, and the purpose? Who's the audience? And so forth and all that. For me, sharing my story, our story, the village's story to Tearepa is based on trust, connections and having those relationships with him and his family. So it has become a family collaboration or participation.

It is really the timing too — it happened at the right time — and putting those layers of the story together. They came up with the magic." [Tāme points to Tearepa.]

Tearepa: "The three of us — one, two and Cliff — we all started having cups of tea and plotting this chessboard out, really interrogating the themes, and pulling this chessboard of characters together."

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ON TĀME ITI PLAYING HIMSELF

Tāme: "I mean, when Tearepa and I were talking about the character…"

Tearepa: "I had a secret. And I kept the secret from him."

Tāme: "It was all good. At the end of it, I did agree to it. There was a moment of anxiety, but I got over it and just moved along — it was fun, really."

Tearepa: "We surrounded Papa Tāme with the best cast we could produce from NZ at the time of shooting. We were really proud — and the fact is that all of these people came on was because everyone was committed to wanting to bring Papa Tāme's story to life on-screen."

Tāme: "And having the experience working with people like Cliff Curtis and Manu Bennett."

Tearepa: "And Jay Ryan."

Tāme: "And Jay Ryan. That was a new experience for me, working with people that have the craft and they're very good at it, and learning from that, too."

Tearepa: "They learned a lot from you too, though. They learned a lot from you Papa."

Tāme: "But it was great."

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ON FINDING THE RIGHT APPROACH

Tearepa: "It's not what happened — it's a response to what happened. In that spirit, the spirit that guided us through here, is that this film, Muru, we hope is a prevention from this occurring to Tūhoe or to any Māori community ever again.

Two times, our government has repeated their actions. And in many ways this is more than a reminder — it's a clear, strong message that the memory of the community is alive and well. It's saying: 'we know what you've done and we know what has happened, and here is our response. We've taken preventative measures to ensure the safety, the ongoing safety of our communities'.

There was another version that was just much more Beehive and Wellington and police-focused, and a sort of very faithful chronological understanding of the machine and the system, and how it reached the moment of pushing the red button. But when we really held that script up and stress-tested it, there's no heart there, there's nothing to learn there. Why aren't we in the community? So we successfully screwed that one up and threw it into the basket, and put our story where it rightfully should be told."

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ON WORKING THROUGH REAL-LIFE TRAUMA WITH THE TŪHOE COMMUNITY

Tāme: "That was my role, and others around us, to have those conversations with the community."

Tearepa: "We had two years' worth of conversations. This was something that we carried with us every day, over the entire process. Is the commitment to telling this story going to enact more trauma, or retraumatise? Or, can we do this in a way where the point is so well-articulated, and the kaupapa is so well-understood and carried by everybody involved with this, that we do understand it as a prevention?"

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ON MAKING THE FILM WHERE THE RAIDS HAPPENED

Tearepa: "What was it like staging an action film in Tāme's backyard? It was the most fun we've ever had as a full, experienced crew. We made many decisions from the outset, and one of them was not to shoot this in a West Auckland studio, or on a Lord of the Rings set. So we went to Tāme's backyard, and we spent our time conversing and communicating with everybody there so everyone in the community had an understanding of what was going to happen. 

It was an incredible amount of fun. It required an incredible amount of focus. Why it was easy was because it was all character-motivated and generated, so we're not imposing this external new worldview into the film — the film and the sequences are driven by the action of the characters. So that made it clear for everyone."

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ON SHOOTING DURING THE PANDEMIC

Tearepa: "It was the best thing for us because it brought us much focus, and it brought us closer together. We're always trying to cast the lightest footprint in and amongst the community, but the amount of focus meant there was no third wheel to lean on. It was really up to us.

It was like making an old-school 1980s film, you know, an old-school George Miller or an old-school Geoff Murphy film. It was just us and the crew, deep in the Valley, making this thing happen."

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ON THE PERSONAL IMPACT AMONG THE COMMUNITY, CAST AND CREW

Tāme: "It was a whole new experience for the Valley, and bringing people into the space. Actually, that part was quite fun. After everybody agreed to participate in the making of the movie — it was a big thing for the village, to see something big is happening within our village — they were really excited, particularly my generation, the older folks, the ladies and the men there.

And meeting Cliff Curtis and Manu Bennett, and all those guys — they really loved that."

Tearepa: "There was an excitement factor, but then down inside each character, our cast members, there was a personal connection to the date, to the day that we're trying to bring to life as well. And that's what everyone was carrying — this personal connection. 

A lot of people were caught up inside this raid that day, and everyone had a personal story that connected them to someone who had been victimised or someone who had been caught up in this false net, so the personal stakes were really, really high."

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ON BRINGING THIS STORY TO THE WORLD

Tearepa: "Everyone stays glued to their seats when the credits roll. We have been so specific with the Valley, in terms of the dialect, the language, the relationships — they are so specific. And I guess in committing to that level of specificity, you are universalising the story.

There's a big undercurrent that's happening worldwide in terms of questions of authority, policing and how they should be protecting communities — there's always been a question mark there. So with that theme of loyalty and protection and authority, there is a lot of international resonance when they watch this specific valley."

Tāme: "I had this conversation with Tearepa, sharing some of those experiences, those stories that come from within the village. The experiences we're covering come from well over 100 years — not just what happened in 2007, but what happened in 1916 to Rua Kēnana, what happened in the 1860s, right through that whole period of time. We survived here to tell the story, and to bring that story here and share it to the world really. And of course it resonated to many other Indigenous people, to other people that have been through the same experiences like our village."

Tearepa: "To add to it, there is an overall awareness of the why we're making it — but really, in terms of the scriptwriting, it was about understanding and turning inwards. It was very inward-facing, to look into the Valley, to look into Papa Tāme's personal story. And with those themes, how we could bring those themes to life with characters within the village, within the Valley?

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Muru is screening in Australian and New Zealand cinemas. Read our full review.

Images: Jawbone Pictures, Wheke Group Limited.

Published on November 11, 2022 by Sarah Ward
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